Conducting a really juicy interview

I wrote this in response to a question posted in the Science Writers group at Linked in. There are some interesting discussions going on there; if you haven’t joined, jump over for a look. One of the members asked:

“How do you come up with the best questions during the interview? What do you watch for to pursue in your line of questioning?”

I’ve found that a really good interview requires a combination of excellent preparation and free-thinking as things go along. In the preparation phase, one needs to get as familiar as possible, of course, with a scientist’s work – which can be a challenge if you have to deal with people working on a wide range of topics and disciplines, technologies, etc. In biomedicine that’s pretty much always the case these days. Have a look at the person’s CV, paying particular attention to their recent publications, but also go back and look at their earlier work. A lot of scientists have a “red thread” of interest – something they started working on long ago that has remained a sort of “Leitmotif” over the years. Watching how such themes develop can give you a good impression of where they are headed. Most people are working on something really exciting right now that they haven’t published yet but have hinted at in their recent work, and I always like to try to tease those themes out of them. They won’t tell you the details, but they might give you a general sense of where they are going with a topic. If they’ve written any reviews recently, be sure to read them. Check out any “news-and-views”-type articles that may have been written about their recent projects. If they haven’t published a recent review, read a couple by other authors.

Most scientific papers deal with very specific questions, often applying some new technology or approach, but the thing that makes them really interesting is the fact that they are usually examples of a broader principle. A project may test an existing model, or aim to develop a new one, and great scientists are always aware of the connection. If you can get this broader sense of the “meaning” of a project and ask the person about it, he or she is usually willing to talk at this level of things. A lot of Nobel prizes have begun with very specific experiments, but the researcher knew that they were tightly connected to a hierarchy of larger and larger models; a single experiment might shake a whole branch of knowledge or open an entirely new path for investigation.

Never be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand something, or the logic behind what the person is saying. A lot of times scientists will talk about what they are doing but forget to explain why they think it’s so important – getting to that point is a must…

Some basic questions to keep in mind: Why is this work important? Why is this the right time to ask this particular question; why haven’t people asked it before, or what has prevented them from answering it before? Why did the scientist choose this approach/technology in trying to answer it? Did something happen during the project that was really unexpected or surprising? Did it change his or her view of some fundamental process or mechanism? What new questions do the results suggest?

And I always throw in a couple of wild cards: What’s your “dream” experiment? If there were no limits in the resources or manpower at your disposal, what would you do next, and why? What’s the most exciting paper you’ve read from your field in the last few months?

Watch for the “gleam” in a researcher’s eye – when he or she gets excited, and follow that wherever it goes. It usually means you’re close to something that motivates them to keep doing a job that can be difficult and frustrating. Tapping into that source of motivation often gives you a strong sense of why a theme is so important right now.

If you can get answers to these questions, your interview will have real “meat” in it – you’ll be giving your readers unique insights into the state of the art of a topic, where it’s headed, and what they should be watching for in the near future. It will also give them a broader appreciation for a person’s work and a scientist’s field. All of this will help when you have to edit the piece for publication – when you have to finish off those incomplete sentences, reconnect thoughts, etc. Pay attention to the person’s individual speech and style and edit the piece so that it reflects the scientist’s personality.

One last point: try to make the finished product something that a researcher’s colleagues, and not just non-specialists, will enjoy reading. Science communicators often have a unique opportunity to spend some quality time with people who are important in their fields. I always think of myself as a stand-in for the reader – I get to go to lunch with this famous person. Not everybody gets that chance. Try to give the reader this sense of a personal encounter with one of today’s “great minds.”

More on this topic later.

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